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Trump’s first week in power and what it means for Canada

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Joe Varner, former Director of Policy for the Ministers of National Defence and Justice and iFellow of the Inter University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, examines President Donald Trump’s first week in power and what it might mean for Canada.

One week is now under President Donald J. Trump’s belt and the Trudeau government should be asking itself what is the impact of the first seven days and what does that mean for Canada?

In his first week on the Foreign policy front, President Trump has announced that he will move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem, cautioned NATO to get its collective act together plus warned China that the ‘One China’ policy is up for negotiation and it’s attempt to steal the South China Sea had to stop. On International Trade, the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans Pacific Trade (TPP) deal and said that it would open up the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) to negotiation. On the issue of immigration and refugees front Trump has said that he would start to build the wall between the United States and Mexico and that he would personally oversee its construction. It was also announced that there would be a ban on refugees entering the United States on visa from high risk countries . In addition, Trump was quick to end federal funding going to foreign non-​governmental organizations that perform abortions, reinstating the “Mexico City Policy” of Ronald Reagan, and this a day after the anniversary of the decision in Roe versus Wade and just days before the Life March on Washington, DC. On the domestic front, he issued instructions to ease the provisions of Obamacare now facing repeal in the Republican– dominated Congress and Senate as well as giving a green light to advance the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

None of these moves are real surprises in that President Trump took similar positions throughout most of his life, his election campaign and then foreshadowed them in his inaugural address. What maybe a surprise to observers is the speed at which he is moving towards implementing change. President Trump is a real estate mogul, used to taking risk and making high impact decisions at lightening-​speed. In real estate acquisition the successful are good at the cold, hard kill. He is the master of the hostile takeover as the Washington political party elites discovered too late. Trump has a habit of surrounding himself with ultra-​intelligent, efficient and ruthless people. Donald J. Trump does not back down even when the conventional wisdom says that his pragmatism is wrong. After fifty well-​seasoned Republican national security experts bolted from the Republican camp to either neutrality or the Democrats, Candidate and now President Trump just went out and built his own team. If his current national security team of Generals Flynn, Mattis and Kelly as well as former Senator Dan Coats is any indication of the future, Trump will field one of the toughest, wisest, and experienced national security teams in United States history. People make the mistake of underestimating Donald J. Trump and they do it at their own peril.

You could easily brush off the impact of Trump’s first week in office and his agenda of change as the anti-​Obama path that took him to the Oval office. After all, we have seen it here in Canada in that the Trudeau régime has moved to reverse almost anything that it can find that is left over from the previous Harper Conservative government. There are those who would say this is just ‘red meat’ to American Republican voters: the one China Policy and North American Free Trade Agreement are up for re-​negotiation and Trans Pacific Partnership is dead. But taking such an approach to these changes is a crutch in a sense that it allows one to dismiss what is likely to be a régime of change like no other. Canada requires a much deeper analysis of the United States and where it is heading under President Trump. For instance, it appears that the Trump administration has no interest in ‘soft power’ approaches like funding birth control measures in the developing world espoused for example by our Trudeau government, an indication that Mr. Trump’s team views the world in hard power terms exclusively.

A wise former Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister in the Right Honourable Joe Clark used to say when the United States is not paying attention to Canada that Canada does very well in negotiations with the United States. He also cautioned that the opposite was true in that when we had the United States attention on an issue, we did not fare so well. Thus far, the Trudeau government has sent a small team of his aides to meet with the Trump transition team, shuffled the deck in terms of a more United States-​friendly Global Affairs Minister in Chrystia Freeland, and sent a small delegation to the Inauguration. In what has been the smartest government move to date, retired Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie was named Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs suggesting that the Trudeau government at the very least want to work cooperatively with the new Trump administration. General Leslie and the new Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis are close friends and cut from the same cloth in that they are brilliant academics and tough soldiers who have worked together and commanded troops in Afghanistan. But this relationship alone will not shelter Canada from Mr. Trump and his advisers long held views of a country that does not pull its weight on the world stage and that has more than its fair share in advantage from North American Free Trade. On the Syrian refugee crisis and refugees in general Canada and the Trump White House are thousands of miles apart in policy terms and now in practice.

Observers of Canada-​United States relations could justifiably ask what does all this mean for Canada in the near term and the longer term. In the near term, it means that while the Trump régime finds its footing in defining its relationship with a Republican-​dominated Senate and Congress and its neighbors and allies, that we can expect a very rapid change in United States policy across the board with a heavy degree of pragmatism in the personal idiosyncratic manner of Mr. Trump. Canadian analysts at both the Privy Council Office and Global Affairs should be poring through Mr. Trump’s speeches and public comments on a variety of issues to gauge likely future policy courses, where they are similar to previous and administrations, and where they are different and markedly different. We should be prepared to receive clear United States attention on foreign affairs, defense, national security, international trade and ‚immigration. Over the longer term, as the Trump administration’s policies crystallize and harden, the Prime Minister and his staff must resist the urge for a quick selfie and becoming the centre of the anti-​Trump administration movement abroad; the consequences for Canada and Canadians could be grave. Engagement at all levels and at the highest levels particularly, will be key to gaining intelligence on the future course of the Trump administration and building a strong relationship that carries us both through rocky times. Underlying it all, by ignoring the changes south of the border and polarizing the anti-​Trump sentiment, the Liberal government will open a path for Kevin O’Leary in the current Conservative Leadership race and a Conservative victory in a 2018 General Election.

Joe Varner is the former Director of Policy for the Ministers of National Defence and Justice and is a Fellow of the Inter University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society.

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Guest Tuesday, 21 February 2017
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